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The Book of Pastoral Care: Part III, Chapter 16

The Meek and the Easily Provoked

By Pope St Gregory the Great


The meek and the easily provoked should be advised differently. For sometimes, when the meek are in a position of authority, they suffer from idleness, which is akin to sloth. And all too often, their excessive leniency softens the strictness of vigilance unnecessarily.

On the other hand, when the easily provoked take positions of leadership, when they regress into a mental frenzy brought on by impulsive anger, they confuse the lives of their subordinates and destroy the stillness of tranquility. When they are led by their rage, they do not know what they do on account of their anger, nor do they know what they suffer in themselves. What is even worse, they sometimes think that the stimulus of their anger is the zeal of righteousness. As we know, when vice is believed to be virtue, sin accumulates without fear.

Therefore, the meek often grow idle in the laziness of inactivity, while the easily provoked often deceive themselves by believing they act with the zeal of righteousness. Thus, for the former, a vice is unknowingly associated with virtue, and in the latter, vice disguises itself as the zeal of virtue.

Therefore the meek should be advised that they flee what is upon them, and the easily provoked are to attend to what is in them. The former should discern what they do not have; the latter should notice what they do have.

The meek should strive to be solicitous; whereas the irascible should condemn turbulence.

The meek should be advised that they study to gain the zeal of righteousness; the easily provoked should be advised that they supplement the zeal they believe themselves to have with meekness.

To demonstrate the difference, the Holy Spirit is shown to us as both a dove and in fire, because, clearly, to all that he fills, he exhibits the simple meekness of a dove and the ardent zeal of fire. (St Matthew 3; 16 and Acts 2:3-4)

Therefore, no one is filled with the Holy Spirit if in the tranquility of meekness he deserts the ferevor of zeal, or again, if in the ardor of zeal he loses the virtue of meekness.

Perhaps we can explain this better if we bring forward the authority of Paul, who promoted distinct methods of teaching for two of his disciples who were both endowed with the virtue of charity.

Advising Timothy, he says: “Reprove, entreat, and rebuke with all patience and doctrine.” (2 Timothy 4:2)

But Titus he advises, saying: “Speak these things and exhort, and rebuke with all authority.” (Titus 2:15)

Why is it that he dispenses his teaching so artistically as to recommend authority to one and long-suffering to the other, unless he saw that Titus was a meeker spirit and Timothy was a little more fervent?

Titus he inflames with zeal, while Timothy he tempers with the patience of leniency. To the one he adds what is lacking; to the other he subtracts what is too strong. The one he encourages with the spur; the other he moderates with the bridle. Being the great gardener of the Church, he waters some shoots, but, others he prunes so that they do not grow too much. For by not growing, they cannot bear fruit, but also if they grow too much, the fruit will be lost. (1 Corinthians 3:6-9)

But the wrath that sneaks in under the guise of zeal is very different from the anger that disturbs the heart without even the pretext of zeal. For the former is extended indefinitely in those places where it belongs; but the latter should never be inflamed.

It should be known that the easily provoked differ from the impatient because the impatient do not endure the things brought upon them by others, whereas the easily provoked actually start things that must be endured.

For the easily provoked often follow those who shun them, promote strife, and rejoice in the toil of confrontation. However, it is best if we put off our correction of them until after the commotion of their anger. This is because when they are perturbed they do not know what we are saying to them. When, however, they have returned to themselves, they accept our words of exhortation more freely, and when pacified, are embarrassed that we had to tolerate their behavior, just as to a mind that is drunk with fury every right thing that is said appears to be wrong.

Hence, when Nabal was drunk, Abigail laudably kept quiet about his sin, but when he had digested his wine, she rightly spoke of it. (1 Samuel 25:2-38) In this way, he was able to consider the evil that he had done, because he did not hear of it until he was again sober.

But when the easily provoked attack others to such an extent that it is impossible to ignore them, they should be chastened not with an open rebuke, but under a sort of careful respectfulness. And we can explain this better with the example of Abner.

For when Asael attacked him with vehement and inconsiderable haste, it is written: “Abner speaking to Asael said: ‘Turn away and do not follow me, or else I will be compelled to strike you to the ground.’ But he refused to listen and did not desire to turn away. Therefore, Abner struck him with the back side of his spear, thrust it through, and he died.” (2 Samuel 22:23)

For whom does Asael represent if not those who are vehemently seized and carried along by fury? Such people, when they are in frenzy, should be shunned in proportion to the extent that they are carried away in their madness.

Thus Abner, which in our language is called the “lamp of the father,” fled; because if the teacher (whose tongue indicates the supernal light of God) perceives the mind of this man to be carried away in a frenzy and he refuses to debate the angry man with words, he is likened to one who does not wish to strike the one that pursues him. But when the easily provoked will not temper themselves through consideration and, like Asael, do not cease in their madness, it is necessary that those who must confront them do so not with anger, but with all possible calmness, and let them suggest a reproof subtly, as if offering a side-jab to their frenzied soul.

As such, Abner, when he stood against his pursuer, did not strike him directly, but struck him with the back end of the spear. For to strike with the point, is to attack with an open rebuke. But to strike the pursuer with the back end of the spear is to touch gently the one who is in a fury and, as it were, to spare him. Asael died immediately, because agitated minds, when they sense that they are being spared and when they are touched inwardly for having been dealt with calmly, “fall down” at once from the elevation upon which they have placed themselves. Therefore, those who through the stroke of gentleness revive from their impulsive frenzy, die symbolically, without being struck with steel.


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